Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Someone's Fargo Video Review

This is not by me, and I don't even entirely agree with it, but it's someone at least talking in the ballpark of blatant themes in the show, which is better than the interminable "oh hey did you see this Easter Egg referencing No Country for Old Man? It's the same brand of cigarette!"

Of course the flaw with Subjectivity vs Objectivity is a theme already explored in this work: the randomness of the universe belies neither truth. It's just pointless, cold, and uncaring, and we forge our subjectivity out of that. But you know, good for him at least having the discussion.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Adapting to the Eighties: Little Drummer Girl

Combining the themes of the last two posts, let's talk about a book that was adapted into a movie in the 80's, by John Le Carre. "Little Drummer Girl", starring Diane Keaton. The experience of watching this movie is positively bizarre.

So the book. As described elsewhere, the introduction is an excellent and romantic depiction of the class differences between Palestinians and Israelis. You can read it for free with the Amazon preview.

But really, it is Le Carre's most disturbing book. Sexual relations have always been a metaphor for the spy-business in his novels (usually adultery), and LDG is about Israeli black ups recruiting a young, radical actress to be a mole in Palestinian terrorist organizations. So he makes the metaphor seduction, and is extremely in your face about it. The mood of the book can only be described as "incredibly uncomfortable" as this actress is exploited and seduced by both sides, and her mental world collapses as she can not keep up the difference between reality and her illusions (a disintegration encouraged by her cynical spymasters, and the sheer surrealism of life under occupation for the Palestinians.) None of the sex would pass modern standards of consent, and it only gets worse from there.

It is terribly dark and disturbing. One might even say "sick." And from the introduction, it's quite clear this is what the author was going for. There's nothing light-hearted about any of Le Carre's novels, but especially this one. (It's still very good, so if you can stomach it, definitely read the book.)

Which makes this movie so very tonally different. Now, often when books with intense psychological depths are adapted, losing the main character's inner dialogue changes the presentation dramatically - we no longer have the anchor of their explanations for everything, only the appearance of their surface behavior, and so the story becomes much more archetypical. We have to do the interpretation for ourselves. ("Twilight" is an excellent example of this: Bella goes from someone we know is deep in thought about everything to... a rudely brusque and spacy persona.)

But as you see from the trailer and the star, this movie has the surface of... 1980's action film. It cinematically feels like... "Ghostbusters" and "Big Trouble in Little China." The alluring bell sounds about something being revealed, the bouncy music of a romantic or exciting night happening, or Diane Keaton proudly-but-naively demanding to know just what the hell is going on (until a big strong man comforts her.)

Watching the movie feels like someone demanded absolute fidelity to the plot of the book, and keeping certain key lines, and then looked away when the director changed everything about the tone and delivery. It's a wacky adventure story of a girl falling into a hidden magical world, with all the same visual and audio cues that we've gotten from fighting ghosts.

You want to yell "No, Diane K, stop getting flustered and then soothed by these men who know what's going on, you're supposed to actually be losing your mind at all this, never recovering."

Which is a pity, because the surrealism of what Charlie thinks is going on, contrasted with the "objective" point of view of what is being orchestrated by the intelligence unit, would make some fantastic cuts. Instead all attempts at that - such as the climax where she hands a bomb sent by the terrorists to the intended victim, surrounded by a disposal team in hazmat suits with guns, but has to go through the dialogue she would have had if she was faking being an innocent student returning the victim's briefcase - just read as funny and confused.

This all of course raises the question: are these 80's film techniques necessarily trivializing and comedic? Or have they just gained affective association, and we think they are action-y because that's what all the other movies who use them (and have survived) are like?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Eighties Adaptations

I guess we're talking a lot about filmed adaptations now, and that's good, since too often discussion of adaptations devolves into "Is it good or bad? Were they LOYAL to the original? Is actor X perfect as classic character Y?" instead of interesting questions like "Why does a visual medium benefit from this change? What is different about the themes now, than when the previous version was written three decades ago?"

So we've got "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and "The Tick", both originally written work from 1986. Despite very different plots, they are fairly similar thematically: the main character is extremely weird, with unexplained supernatural phenomenon going on with them, and a complete unwillingness to follow conventional society. This character surreally interacts with the rest of society, who are stubborn in focusing on their normal concerns and methods of interaction, and generally willfully blind/dismissive to how much weird shit is going on around them. The title protagonist has a sidekick who acts as a bridge between them and the normal world.

There's a lot of differences, but these parallels aren't coincidentally. The fundamental theme of both is a sort of existentialist "how we let the psychological absurd into our lives."

(I can't believe there isn't more writing on the influences of French existentialism on the Tick. It seems really obvious, from the way "French" is their default variable for "foreign" and the way characters resemble French wrestling costumes, which have always been more about abstractions of our inner selves more than American professional wrestling, and just the way everything is both very erudite in its references (Die Fledermaus) and abstractly non-specific (The City).)

And fortunately, both of these have recently come out on internet streaming prestige TV series.

You can get both from Amazon, and they are pretty worth it.

And they are of course substantially different from the original - but precisely in the way you need to to capture the themes of the original. We're in a different time and a different medium than we were in 1986, and so you have to approach this differently to get to the same place.

What's most notable is... neither of these shows are about the title character. The protagonist and focal character is unmistakably that "somewhat boring sidekick figure" from the written work. In the Tick this is the perennial butt-of-jokes Arthur, and in Dirk Gently it's a completely new character (played by superstar Elijah Wood), due to fact that Gently has a new buddy in each of his novels. But we open with them and their boring life, see their personal struggles, their shock and resistance as this bizarre extrusion from the weird invades their lives, and eventually their embrace of absurd adventure.

We've gone from the main character being Don Quixote, to focusing on Pancho.

And it works really well. The quasi-normal sidekick is a much better stand-in for our modern audience than the mythic figure. We easily identify with Arthur and Elijah. And then the title character now works very well as largely an extension of the main character; both Gently and the Tick are hinted as as figments of the imagination.

(The Tick much more so: he disappears so conveniently that they lampshade it with a moment where Arthur has the revelation that he's imagining the Tick, only to be anti-climactically put down by someone else seeing him. But that doesn't really take away that the Tick has no identity outside Arthur: he doesn't remember anything before meeting Arthur, he's incapable of acting on his own much, and he literally says "I am the you that you always wanted to be." The entire series so far is about Arthur's battle with sanity as represented by the Tick and the emotional state the Terror.)

As always with my reviews, I'm not saying anything very insightful. (I should have a lot more to say about what the Tick and Dirk respectively say about the mental health of the person they are orbiting, for instance.) I'm just really struck no one else is saying this yet. The new Tick series is about Arthur mostly! The Dirk Gently series relegates him to a side character! Why is this so under discussed? Why can't we watch a film and say what we see in it?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Satire, Adaptation, and My Dumb Mistakes

One of the challenges in talking about critical analysis of films and the ideological content they display, is how people view satire. You may argue that Jurassic Park or the Star Wars Prequels are satire, and your interlocutors will grumble. After all, we know what satire is - it's loud and outrageous. It's Gilbert and Sullivan or the "Scary Movie" franchise. In real "satire", every line is comical and non-believable, and it has as much understatedness as the Something Awful Political Cartoon Thread.

I know this attitude is wrong, but I can lazily fall into, and why I flopped on watching a "serious" movie: John Le Carre's "The Looking Glass War."

The Looking Glass War Poster

Check out that grim poster and that IMDB page. It's a dry espionage thriller. And all the European talking heads giving dry dialogue give no other impression than that these players are somewhat unpleasant, and rather slow. Hey though, at least it has a young Anthony Hopkins.

Now unfortunately, watching this movie now is tricky. You've got two options. You can buy a DVD off Amazon and wait for it to arrive, or for whatever reason, sketchy warez sites are happy to provide.

For the latter, follow this link or ask Google, it works fine, but make sure your anti-malware is up to date and for gods sake don't click on any ads.

As you see, the plot is so difficult for us to follow (well, for me anyway), that it's challenging to be critical enough about what we do understand of the characters to see it all as satire.

In particular what is up with this scene at 15 minutes in.

Two of the officers go to a rundown apartment building, trying to find someone, but all they see is a little girl speaking through a mail slot. She tells them her mummy is at work, she's left home alone to take care of herself, and her dad has gone on an aeroplane to get money. It's very surreal, and didn't advance any plot I could understand.


So then I read the book. Which has a great, bitter introduction by Le Carre.

So yeah, actually reading the book with this spelled out for me, it is goddamned hilarious. It's still very dry and bureaucratic, but I can understand that the fact that everything they are saying and doing seem out of place or misguided is the bloody point. I have the all important context.

Take the hallway scene I mentioned before. Leclerc, the department chief, is permanently lost in sentimentality about the heroism of World War 2. He pushed one of his non-combat desk clerks to fly into Soviet allied territory to retrieve some photographs (of a military facility that turns out not to be there), and thinks he's launched the next Normandy invasion. Leclerc isn't some loud Teddy-Roosevelt caricature though; he's sad, a little noble, a little foppish, and muted enough to be respectable. When he finds out his "agent" has died, he begins reminiscing about all the times he had to tell wives and girlfriends and mothers that pilots under his command in WW2 had died.

This terrible confrontation is the core of Leclerc's identity. He'd like a prouder department and all the perks that come with it, sure, but they really only serve to remind him of the emotional duty he once carried. He even slips up and gives his agent an alias that was the name of his favorite pilot who died on a mission. It's weird to think "his desire is to tell women their husband/boyfriend is dead and he can't tell them why because it's classified", but that moment has become such a mawkish touchstone that yeah, it can become a fetish for the right identity.

American movies are no better:

And now, after twenty years of sleepiness, Leclerc gets to do it again. An agent died in the field, and in the wee hours he must immediately rush and tell his wife in person. He is too understated for gleefulness, so it's hard to see his eagerness, but off he goes in the middle of the night.

Except it's not a beautifully lit farmhouse, with a domestic woman waiting at home on her man. The man in this case has drunk most of the money away, and certainly wasn't paid enough by the department in the first place, so he lives in a shithole with the rest of the underclass, and his wife is off making ends meet while his six year old child sits home listening to the radio. And Leclerc can only relive this glory moment by trying to explain it through a mail slot to a young girl and her doll. (It doesn't even have the dignity of being classified; of course the terribly trained "spy" told his family right away.)

This scene is bizarre, and hilarious in its absurdity. After reading it on the page, you immediately want to actually see this, in all of its gory detail, because of just how surreal the imagery is. There is no way flat text can capture the perfection of this anti-climax.

Right. This was the movie I just saw. I couldn't understand the scene then, but once I did, I immediately needed it realized in full technicolor. That really explains the entire tragedy of the movie: it lacks the necessary context, but is full of the superficial viscera that makes it real.


Now, I hate to fall back on "see, the author said so." If the author's words were the sole truth with regard to their work, then we could just read the foreword and be done with the hassle of reading the whole book itself. But in this case they taught me that yes, even very dry things with somber characters and no laugh track, are written to skewer the foibles of those misguided fools. We've got to look at their actions ourselves, and determine what this says about the universe of the story.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Murder in Triplicate

There's a new trailer for Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's "Murder on the Orient Express." It looks marginally less bad than the last trailer.

But really, this is just a reminder that the David Suchet series production of this was AMAZING. Just go watch that.

Amusingly, it's the most controversial of the classic Suchet series by far, because it's so atypical for the cozy mystery series. But this episode builds off of the fidelity from everyone other episode of the series to make the point "the crime is so sacrilegious that it drives Poirot to towering heights of anger." The difference between this and his attitude in every other episode (and every other production) matters, directly contradicting the ending of the award winning 1974 movie.

If you care about justice, watch the David Suchet episode. It will be interesting to see if this new movie offers anything remotely as passionate.

Video submitted until Youtube takes it down. After that just go pay $2 on Amazon.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


For the first time ever, we have multiple, good comments.

1angelette writes in reply to Fountain Creed Runner
You've really helped me to understand the shortcomings of humanist critiques about the objectification of women in archetypal films. It's more effective, for that goal, to start from the ground up in that kind of movie instead of writing a couple lines about a maiden being a math major, isn't it? 

Yeah, exactly.  If you want more of that, make sure to read my post a while ago on the best character from Hancock, Mary.

For the recent best, most extreme version of archetypical critique of sexism, check out Sucker Punch.

SMG has written a lot on this most controversial Zack Snyder film, in the original thread, and more recently:
Well, exactly: even an idiot can understand that Sucker Punch depicts a triad of imaginary, symbolic and real. And the imaginary fantasy sequences are blatantly ideological fantasies: you have the 'Strong Female Characters' cutting down hordes of faceless drones that stand for a generic totalitarianism. 
These 'propaganda' sequences are the ones that obviously look like 300. But this is not fascist propaganda at all; Sucker Punch's women are creating liberal propaganda. They are multicultural time-travellers from 20XX, wielding present-day spec ops weaponry to fight the failed ideologies of the past. This is exactly Black Widow in the Avengers: inexplicably fighting Egyptian mummies using wire-fu, tasers and dual-wielded handguns. 
Predicting his work on Wonder Woman, Snyder puts these propaganda heroes in a WWI setting weirdly mixed with WWII and Lord Of The Rings fantasy. The message of the propaganda is plainly that WWI was not the result of industrial capitalism, but simply caused by the evil Nazis. Let's get some strong liberal feminists to refight those Nazis, and we'll maintain world peace. 
But again, as you point out, there are two more levels. Beneath the Buffy/Avengers fantasy level, we have the symbolic level - the level of everyday reality where 'Buffy' is actually the actress Sarah Michelle Gellar and 'Black Widow' is actually the actress Scarlett Johannson. On this level, the actresses have some formal freedom, get money, but are still working in a sexist industry - being pressured to fuck director Joss Whedon and so-on. 
Finally, beneath everything, you have 'the desert of the real' from The Matrix, where the capitalist exploitation is laid bare. The heroes 'put on the sunglasses' and are fully aware of the ghouls and their messages. "They Live, We Sleep", etc. 
Sucker Punch is branded sexist because it is not a liberal feminist film. It is not Joss Whedon feminism; it is a left-wing feminist film.

 And AG writes in reply to Genre:
It's just the heist genre, stylistically, as applied to a less traditional heist. A systemic heist rather than a MacGuffin object heist.  
Showtime's House of Lies applies the format to management consulting, and not coincidentally resembles a white-collar version of a classic fast-talking con man film. Non-violent Guy Ritchie by way of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean remake, set in a world where the bag of cash is now a number update on a screen. But the pacing, the music montages, the dialogue rhythms, they're all out of the heist genre playbook.
Well you're half right. There is something shared in the quasi-documentary meta-storytelling style of both films, told with sly self-awareness and shock value. However, they are as different as a comedy versus a tragedy. The whole second half of a heist movie is about "it sure looks bad now" when you know the heroes will pull it out in the end, whereas this genre is the mirror opposite: it's too good and you know the crash is gonna be epic. It's a tragedy, one that dominates the entire style of sad narration, but one that tries to educate you "the real villain is systemic corruption."

(Which isn't wrong, and why I appreciate more recommendations.)

@jadagul on tumblr mentioned that 21 (based on the true story "Bringing Down the House") was also this style, and yes, I just forgot to mention it. I watched it for exactly this reason.

(When I say "Based on a True Story", that's the tongue in cheek tone from someone who's a fan of the Coen brothers.)


And unsurprisingly the Wonder Woman review got several comments, so you might want to go read the discussion over there.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


I'm trying to identify a movie genre that seems a) really obvious and b) I have not heard anyone else describe. If anything I would call them "Lewisian" because they all seem like they come from a book by Michael Lewis.

This is movies that are a recounting of "that time I made a shitload of money unethically exploiting an inefficiency or loophole in the system. We are talking hilarious amount of money for me, a working class joe. This epitomizes how morally bankrupt the system is. Eventually it all came crashing down and I am telling you this from a jail cell."

So, you know, we've got Big Short.

Now I am not referring to the above as plot elements, but rather it's the film-making style that unites this genre. It's got a lot of first person narrating, and "you're not gonna believe this" flashbacks, along with fairly preachy moralizing about how wrong it was that this sort of thing was allowed to go on. There's a lot of montages, and therefore a lot of well known pop-music on the soundtrack to go over these pop montages (usually of excess.)

Compare it to the non-Michael Lewis-based movie "War Dogs."

See? Very similar styles. Or, the upcoming movie "American Made" with Tom Cruise.

Now from purely the style elements, I also count the Lewis movie "Moneyball" among this genre. Obviously it's not about breaking the law, but it is about "exploiting the hell out of an inefficiency, and going from laughingstock to hailed as genius" in a way that allows a lot of these same filmic elements to work.